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Heparin-Induced Thrombocytopenia in Plastic Surgery: Do We Take Care Enough?

Knobloch, Karsten M.D.; Gohritz, Andreas M.D.; Redeker, Joern M.D.; Vogt, Peter M. M.D., Ph.D.

Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery: November 2008 - Volume 122 - Issue 5 - p 1592-1593
doi: 10.1097/PRS.0b013e318186cb79

Medical School Hannover, Plastic, Hand and Reconstructive Surgery, Hannover, Germany

Correspondence to Dr. Knobloch, Medical School Hannover, Plastic, Hand and Reconstructive Surgery, Carl-Neuberg-Strasse 1, Hannover 30625, Germany,


We read with great interest the recent report of a multicenter retrospective review of consecutive transverse rectus abdominis myocutaneous flap cases.1 The authors concluded that venous thrombotic prophylaxis does not increase the risk of reoperative hematoma after breast reconstruction with abdominal tissue. However, the use of heparin in plastic reconstructive surgery might be associated with further potentially devastating adverse effects besides hematoma. Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia might be evident as type I, which is nonimmune mediated within the first 4 days of heparin administration by platelet aggregation and sequestration with typically minor clinical sequelae. However, heparin-induced thrombocytopenia type II is immune-mediated, typically within 4 to 14 days after heparin exposure.

It has been suggested that both functional (platelet activation tests) and immunologic assays (antigen assays) are necessary in a given patient to establish the diagnosis of heparin-induced thrombocytopenia. The prevalence of heparin/platelet factor 4 antibodies is currently under investigation. In plastic surgery, we do not know the prevalence of heparin/platelet factor 4 antibodies at all. In cardiac surgery, a high prevalence of antibodies to the heparin/platelet factor 4 complex is evident. However, the low rate of thromboembolic complications, at least in cardiac surgery patients, suggests that the antibody alone does not confer an increased risk of thrombotic complications.2 A decrease in platelet count between days 5 and 10 was suggested to be more specific for heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, irrespective of whether this platelet count fall occurs after postoperative platelet count recovery or is superimposed on persisting postoperative thrombocytopenia.3 However, we do not currently have any large-scale data on this issue in plastic reconstructive surgery.

In plastic reconstructive surgery, microvascular free tissue transfer is often associated with the intraoperative use of a heparin bolus. A recent analysis among 470 patients who underwent 505 microvascular free flap procedures for oncologic defects found no statistically significant effect on the incidence of microvascular thrombosis after intraoperative systemic heparin administration.4 In addition, administration of a single dose of intraoperative heparin does not increase the rate of hematoma formation or prevent microvascular thrombosis.

As mentioned before, heparin-induced thrombocytopenia might be a significant adverse effect in free flap transfer to consider, at least in our view. Two cases of flap failure have been reported recently that were attributed to heparin-induced thrombocytopenia syndrome.5 One 45-year-old woman with recurrent breast cancer underwent a complete skin-sparing mastectomy followed by immediate breast reconstruction using a contralateral pedicled transverse rectus abdominis myocutaneous flap. On postoperative day 12, the patient’s platelet count had dropped to 21,000 cells/μl (from 142,000 cells/μl), indicating severe thrombocytopenia with concomitant positive antiheparin antibody assay and clinical venous flap thrombosis. The other patient, a 65-year-old man, underwent a floor-of-mouth and partial tongue resection followed by immediate reconstructive surgery with an osteocutaneous radial forearm free flap for an infiltrating squamous cell carcinoma of the inferior lip and mandible. He also experienced recurrent venous flap thrombosis with positive antiheparin antibody assay.

Given these preliminary observations, a greater awareness of the potential devastating sequelae of heparin use in plastic surgery may allow earlier detection of heparin-induced thrombocytopenia.

Karsten Knobloch, M.D.

Andreas Gohritz, M.D.

Joern Redeker, M.D.

Peter M. Vogt, M.D., Ph.D.

Medical School Hannover

Plastic, Hand and Reconstructive Surgery

Hannover, Germany

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1. Liao, E. C., Taghinia, A. H., Nguyen, L. P., Yueh, J. H., May, J. W., and Orgill, D. P. Incidence of hematoma complication with heparin venous thrombosis prophylaxis after TRAM flap breast reconstruction. Plast. Reconstr. Surg. 121: 1101, 2008.
2. Everett, B. M., Yeh, R., Foo, S. Y., et al. Prevalence of heparin/platelet factor 4 antibodies before and after cardiac surgery. Ann. Thorac. Surg. 83: 592, 2007.
3. Selleng, S., Selleng, K., Wollert, H. G., et al. Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia in patients requiring prolonged intensive care unit treatment after cardiopulmonary bypass. J. Thromb. Haemost. 6: 428, 2008.
4. Chen, C. M., Ashjian, P., Disa, J. J., Cordeiro, P. G., Pusic, A. L., and Mehrara, B. J. Is the use of intraoperative heparin safe? Plast. Reconstr. Surg. 121: 49e, 2008.
5. Tremblay, D. M., Harris, P. G., Gagnon, A. R., Cordoba, C., Brutus, J. P., and Nikolis, A. Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia syndrome as a cause of flap failure: A report of two cases. J. Plast. Reconstr. Aesthet. Surg. 61: 78, 2008.

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